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Keene Central School, Keene Valley, NY
Keene Central School, Keene Valley, NY

Stressed schools face troubling budget votes

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Across the North Country voters go to the polls to decide the fate of their local school districts, electing new school board members and approving or rejecting school budgets.

This isn't just another ho-hum year for school districts. For half a decade, many districts have faced a nightmare of declining, or flat state aid, skyrocketing costs, a property tax cap and in some parts of the region, sharply declining enrollment. Those pressures have pushed some districts to the brink.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It’s very likely that most of these budgets will pass. Most districts have worked to stay technically under the 2% property tax cap.  Which means that they won’t have to garner a 60% supermajority from voters.

But a lot of districts are coming in with increases that are above four or even five percent. Some provisions of the state pension fund are exempted from the tax cap rule and pensions are a big part of the rising costs for school districts.  So many districts will actually be in that 4-5 percent range. 

Some districts in our region decided to go even higher, with tax increases from 8 percent to nearly 25 percent. Newcomb’s tiny school is talking about more than a 24% increase to support programs there. Most local taxpayers would be exempt, which means that a lot of that increase would be paid for by second homeowners and by the state of New York. Minerva is above 8 Percent and so is Tupper Lake. 

This year, Tupper Lake school superintendent Seth McGowan, raised the alarm earlier this year that his district might be tottering toward insolvency, saying “The levy just broke.” 

People saying that year by year, districts are hollowing out the educational experience of these districts. A study earlier this year that found that half of North Country school superintendents think their districts will be educationally insolvent in the next couple of years. Fully one-quarter think they’ll be truly financially insolvent, unable to pay their teachers or keep the lights on.

John Sipple, with the Center for Rural Schools at Cornell University, says this is kind of uncharted territory in New York. The on-going pressure has sparked a lot of anger.

Canton Central School has seen a 20 percent cut in staff the last two years alone, and plans to cut another four positions this year, including a social studies teacher, a special education teacher, a librarian. The diustrict will still have a budget shortfall of roughly $430,000 dollars. 

Massena is talking about cutting 29 school positions this year. Ticonderoga is slashing 11 positions and  making 12 more positions part time.  Potsdam schools will downsize six jobs.

For decades, schools have been the primary employers in many of our small towns, a real driver of the cash economy: Not just teachers, but janitors, bus drivers, maintenance workers. 

School job cuts of the last few years are the economic equivalent of a massive factory closing, with hundreds of the best middle class jobs leaving the region.

Despite anger over the cuts, the popularity of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the chief architect of the property tax cap, is still around 64%.  Governor Cuomo and the legislature did pump about a billion dollars back into the education system this year.  A lot of school leaders say that helped.

But Cuomo has continued to argue that school districts need to live within their budgets and not keep asking for more dollars from state and local taxpayers.

Julie Grant, Chris Knight and Karen DeWitt contributed to this report.

In-depth coverage of the emerging funding crisis in North Country schools

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